Amazing 10,000-Mile of a Priceless Work of Trip Art; EXHIBITION: It Proved a Real Cloak and Dagger Exercise, Worthy of 007, to Get Invaluable Vincent Van Gogh Painting to Warwickshire

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HE looked like any other passenger. But one person on board a scheduled flight from Australia to Britain was on a remarkable mission.

Stored deep in the hold alongside other travellers' luggage lay his very special cargo - an original painting by van Gogh worth millions of pounds and on a journey from Melbourne to the heart of Warwickshire.

It was part of an extraordinary security operation which has brought the painting to a unique exhibition which will attract thousands of visitors over the next few weeks.

Thirty van Gogh paintings collected from around the world are on display at Compton Verney, near Stratford.

But it was the work called Head of a Man which created the biggest transportation headache and the greatest excitement for exhibition organisers.

The painting was located in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and how to get it 10,000 miles to Compton Verney presented a very special challenge.

Planning began almost three years ago. The art team at Compton Verney, an internationally renowned gallery created from a restored mansion, approached the Aussie gallery in 2003. Only after great discussion and meticulous planning were loan papers finally exchanged last year.

Detailed insurance documents were drawn up to cover the painting's journey to England, the period of its display and then its safe return.

Compton Verney spokesperson Ina Cole explained: "A specialist international art transportation firm, was appointed to bring the painting to the UK.

"The two galleries agreed a date and then a personal chaperone was given the responsibility to physically bring it around the world."

Head of a Man was carefully scrutinised by the Australian gallery's conservator to ensure it was in a fit condition to travel and then packed into expensive and elaborate conservation quality materials surrounded by a foam mould.

Next it was packed in a bespoke wooden crate with leather straps and metal handles and transferred to a climate-controlled van with special air-rise suspension.

Exact details of the trip and the chaperone have not been disclosed for security reasons, but the work of art was taken to the airport, and flown to London.

There, the chaperone and guards took the valuable cargo to a waiting specialist van and driven to Compton Verney where it had to remain inside its crate for 24 hours to allow it to acclimatise.

And when it was finally unpacked, curator and van Gogh expert Martin Bailey knew instantly that it would be one of the highlights of this remarkable show.

He said: "It was very exciting when the painting arrived, after all those years of planning. The box is opened and you see the work for the first time - that is the moment for the curator.

"Head of a Man was one of the few I had only previously seen in reproduction. It is a very moving experience and I found the painting to be more vivid than I had imagined - it sings out at you."

The chaperone stayed in Warwickshire for four days while the painting was unpacked, checked by another conservator and installed.

White cotton gloves are used for handling this and other valuable paintings.

Humidity levels and temperature in the galleries are constantly monitored and lighting is adjusted to specified museum levels. …